As I walked into the office of Howard Cummings, I immediately noticed something that captured my attention. In the back corner of his office sat a wooden candy dispenser with an upside-down Mason jar screwed on the top. Propped against the side of that candy jar was a black Sharpie message written on a yellow piece of card-stock paper that said, “What would Howard do?” For some reason, I couldn’t forget that candy jar. Maybe because of the personal nostalgia attached to similar candy dispensers from my past, or maybe because the more I learned about the man in the message, the more that message became real.
Forty years ago, Howard Cummings graduated with Campbell Law’s first-ever graduating class. He worked a few years in the Pitt County district attorney’s office, and then served a few years in a small private practice that served North Carolina in both Greenville and Farmville. He served for thirty-nine years in the Wake County District Attorney’s office while serving eighteen of those years as the Chief Assistant District Attorney. He watched Raleigh grow from a small city into Central North Carolina’s booming metropolis. He helped design the new Justice Center in downtown Raleigh and prosecuted high-profile murder cases. Now, he works as a criminal defense attorney at Tharington Smith, LLP—one of Raleigh’s premier law firms. Still, the questions remain. Who is Howard Cummings, and what is his backstory? Each set of eyes carries a message, a story, that leads to the present.
I originally stepped into Howard’s office, on the eighteenth floor of the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Raleigh expecting to hear how he had always wanted to be an attorney. However, I heard something quite different. To begin, Howard hails from Kinston, NC, a small town in the eastern part of the State. He grew up helping his father, a general contractor, build houses. Desiring to follow a path similar to his father’s, he attended North Carolina State University and received a degree in Civil Engineering. What he didn’t know at the time was the economy would eventually suffer from gas shortages in the 1970s. Consequently, a career in civil engineering wasn’t as attractive as he originally planned.
These would be the first steps in a long, interesting career.
After Howard realized the hardships ahead for his current career choice, he thought about becoming a lawyer. To his surprise, Howard’s father agreed that it sounded like a good idea. While Howard began searching for schools to attend, he discovered that Campbell University was starting a new law school. He decided to check it out. These would be the first steps in a long, interesting career.
When Howard mentioned that he went to Campbell, I immediately became interested in knowing what Campbell Law was like in the early days. I asked him what his favorite places were. He began to reminisce about a small gas station located in Buies Creek. Roy Lee managed the gas station, one of the only places “to go hang out” in town. Howard mentioned that the only place to get a hamburger in town was the “Blue Lantern” otherwise known as “Jerry’s”. If you wanted to imbibe, you had to drive out of town to Dunn or Raleigh.
“There are 24 hours in the day. You need no more than six hours to sleep, you only need two hours to eat and bathe. The rest of your time belongs to us.”
With a chuckle, Howard looked at his dual screen PC set-up and said that whenever he wrote a paper, he would handwrite it and then send it off to get typed up by a professional in Raleigh. What he said about the first day of class was similar to what happened on the first day of class in the “Paper Chase”. Instead of Professor Kingsfield, entered Dr. Norman Adrian Wiggins. Howard described Dr. Wiggins as a tall, statuesque man— “kind of like Ronald Reagan”. He was staunchly conservative in almost every way. He remembered Dr. Wiggins saying to the students, “There are 24 hours in the day. You need no more than six hours to sleep, you only need two hours to eat and bathe. The rest of your time belongs to us.” Howard said that proved to be a true statement.
Howard noted that at the outset, Campbell hired very competent professors. Leery Davis interviewed Howard after he had applied to Campbell. Remembering the interview, Howard remembered being told the mission of Campbell Law, at the time, was to train future lawyers that would help make North Carolina a better place in both her rural areas and cities. Already, Campbell was looking at the whole person and not just their academics. Campbell brought in professors like Paul “Skip” Stam who had attended UNC Chapel Hill’s Law school, and now serving in North Carolina’s General Assembly. Campbell brought in Dr. Broderick from Notre Dame Law School, Robert E. Lee from Wake Forest Law School, and Sid Eagles who helped write Chapter 15A of the North Carolina Criminal Procedure Act.
He knew he wanted to be in the courtroom and heard that working for a District Attorney would get you there. Therefore, Howard started his career in Pitt County People’s Court. He later did some criminal defense work in the same area for a few years. Howard recalled his first real taste of serious criminal cases. It was the defense of Harvey Lee Greene that he served as second chair on. The case was a nightmare for a defense attorney. The facts were not favorable, and the victims were good people. Howard’s client was given the death penalty for murder.
I asked Howard which cases set-off his career. He gathered his thoughts and said two words, “Jason Young.”
Later, in 1989, his friend at the Wake County District Attorney’s office asked Howard to join him there. Howard agreed and would stay for thirty-nine years. He eventually would take the role of Chief Assistant District Attorney. Although he started in Wake County’s traffic court, he ended up prosecuting difficult murder cases that would later be written about and publicized extensively. I asked Howard which cases set-off his career. He gathered his thoughts and said two words, “Jason Young.”
Jason Young had been a salesman from Raleigh. He was married to an attractive young woman named Michelle. At the time of Michelle’s murder, she was pregnant with their second child, a son. Two years after the body was found by Michelle’s sister, Jason was charged. Howard said they had Jason listed as a suspect but didn’t have enough evidence until strange things started happening. Howard said his curiosity was peaked when Jason defaulted on a wrongful death suit brought by Michelle’s family. Further interest was created when Jason did not even fight for custody of his only living child. He claimed that he didn’t have enough money for lawyers even though Jason’s mother had over a million dollars’ worth of land.
Howard didn’t buy that, so he decided to investigate. What they discovered was that even though Jason was supposedly in Virginia the night of Michelle’s death, he had bought a hotel room that night and left through the emergency exit. He propped the door open with a rock so that the cameras wouldn’t record him coming back later that night. He left the hotel in Virginia, came back to Raleigh, and killed his wife by beating her to death. He failed to consider the possibility that a hotel staff member would find the door propped open and the security camera unplugged at the emergency exit.
Howard presented his case and brought in evidence that Jason had defaulted in order to prove Jason’s silence on the issue of wrongful death. After presenting his case, Howard won the case against Jason Young. To this day, Young is still serving time for the murder of his wife and unborn son. It is doubtful he will ever be free again.
The second case Howard mentioned to me was the Bradley Cooper case. This complex case hinged on the use of high-tech internet routers, Google, and a well-planned scheme that went awry. Similar to the previous case, Mr. Cooper did not want to be married to his wife anymore. Rather than divorce her and pay alimony, he decided to kill his wife. However, instead of unplugging security cameras and propping emergency doors open, Mr. Cooper’s plan was a little more technologically advanced.
Mr. Cooper fell for a pretty young woman from Holland when he was away on a business trip in Paris, France. Cooper was an expert in telecommunications and internet protocol, and had the unique ability to create his own digital telephone lines. He had created a telephone line via the internet to talk with his new girlfriend, and he would later use that same ability to implant a fake telephone conversation to mislead the police into thinking he had been at the store when his wife was killed.
Raleigh detectives developed their theory when they found a sophisticated router in Cooper’s house. Cooper said that he borrowed it from work for professional purposes but that didn’t stop the detectives from uncovering the affair. Furthermore, the detectives found a Google search on Cooper’s computer at home that would show how he found the place to dump Mrs. Cooper’s body. The number of keystrokes that it required for Cooper to find the exact spot where his wife’s body would be found later was no coincidence. Furthermore, Cooper lied when he said that he happened to be surfing the internet and found that site.
Howard had caught him in his lie.
Howard had caught him in his lie and Cooper knew it. Howard said that Boz Zellinger, another Assistant District Attorney working on the case, was the man that understood the sophisticated computer language being thrown around better than he did. Howard’s point—it took a team effort to unfold Cooper’s case, and a team effort is what led to a guilty verdict against Brad Cooper. Cooper appealed but eventually plead guilty to second degree murder.
“You have to use your imagination. Get your notes together and simply think.”
After hearing all that happened in these cases, I was astonished at Howard’s career. How did a man from a small North Carolina town end up prosecuting these cases? How did any of this happen? I asked Howard what I was thinking. He smiled, lifted up a finger and said, “You have to use your imagination. Get your notes together and simply think.” Currently students at Campbell Law represent small towns all over the country. However, I believe the same rings true today. Do the work, think about it, and use your imagination. Howard Cummings is just one excellent example of the many fine advocates that leave the walls of Campbell Law School and go on to make a difference in our local North Carolina communities.